What is the History of January

By Terry John

I should begin this blog about January by wishing you all a very happy and prosperous New Year - but I wonder how many people realise that by doing so, I am actually commemorating an ancient pagan Roman god?

Janus was the god of gates and doors, the Latin word for which, ianua, is the origin of his name. He was also the deity who presided over beginnings and endings and was always depicted with a double faced head, which enabled him to look both forwards and backwards. At first, one face was bearded whilst the other was clean-shaven, perhaps as a symbol of the sun and moon, but later both faces were bearded. In his right hand Janus always carried a key, linking him again with doorways and beginnings. 

He could look ahead into the year to come and also back into the year that had gone. The Romans worshipped him at the commencement of the planting season and at harvest time, and when marriages and births took place and at the beginnings of any important events. He also represented the transition from childhood into adulthood, the border between primitive life and civilization, between the countryside and the city and  peace and war.

According to legend he may have begun life as a real person. He is said to have come from Thessaly and he married a lady named Camese and they established a kingdom called  Latium, which he ruled after her death. Amongst their children was Tiberinus, after whom the River Tiber was named. Janus is said to have given refuge to the god Saturn after he had quarrelled with Jupiter.

Janus proved to be a capable ruler, establishing a time of peace and prosperity for his people, introducing coinage, agriculture and a legal system. After his death he was deified and became the protector of Rome.

One story told about him is that, when Rome was under attack, the daughter of one of the guards betrayed the city by guiding the enemy past the defences. They found their way barred by a hot spring that Janus caused to erupt from the ground and the attack failed. As a result, the doors of his temple were always left open in times of war, so that he could issue forth and defend the city. Once the fighting was over, the doors were closed.

The most famous sanctuary dedicated to Janus was a portal on the Forum Romanum, through which the legions marched when they set off to war. Another of his temples had four portals, called the Janus Quadrifons.

The ancient Roman calendar had only ten months and the New year started on 1st March. Ten was a sacred number to the Romans, so when the extra month of January was added, it became the eleventh month, to be followed by February. The Roman New Year continued to begin on 1st March.

The Anglo Saxons knew January as wolf month because it was the time when wolves, made bold by starvation, gathered around the villages in search of food. They also believed that the 2nd January was one of the most unlucky days of the whole year and that those born on that day would suffer a nasty death.

St Distaff’s Day on 7th January was the time when women had to return to work after the Christmas period. A distaff was another name for a spindle, the emblem of womanly duties. An alternative name for the day was Plough Monday, as on that morning all farm labourers were expected to return to the fields.

St Hilary’s feast day on 13th January was regarded with some apprehension during the medieval period, as it was thought of as the coldest day of the year and heavy frosts on that date foretold prolonged icy weather to come. There was an element of truth in this; one of the most severe winters on record began on 13th January 1205. So bitter was the weather that rivers froze over and ale and wine turned to solid ice and had to be sold by weight. The ground became so hard that no ploughing could be undertaken until 22nd March, when conditions improved. This resulted in a shortage of wheat at harvest time and prices soared.

The Thames froze over in 1536, enabling Henry VIII to travel from Westminster to Greenwich by sleigh along the icy stretches of the river. There were so many cold spells between 1550 and 1750 that the period became known as the Little Ice Age. Rivers across the country froze over on a regular basis and in 1608 the first Frost Fair was held on the solid waters of the Thames. Attractions included sideshows, food stalls and ice bowling. The last frost fair took place in 1814, when an elephant was led across the river near Blackfriars Bridge.

On 2nd January 1770, a huge Christmas pie was baked in London and was shared out to New Year revellers. There is no record of how many people tucked into this giant titbit, but they had plenty to work their way through as it contained two bushels of flour, twenty pounds of butter, four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons. The pie was nearly nine feet in circumference and weighted about twelve stone. 

St Agnes’s Eve on 20th January was, as every young girl knew, the day to divine the identity of a future husband. There were various rituals that were useful. One involved  the transfer of pins from a pincushion to the sleeve of their clothing whilst reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Another method was to fast all day, whilst yet another meant eating a portion of Dumb Cake. This had been prepared by the maiden and her friends in total silence,  but it made a far from delicious meal as it contained a vast amount of salt. If all else failed, then walking backwards upstairs on the way to bed was a certainty.

If a young lady couldn’t wait until 20th January to discover when she was to marry, then the first new moon of the year would help. It had to be viewed through a silk handkerchief that had never been washed. The silky fibres refracted the light, so several moons might become visible. The number of moons indicated the number of years before a marriage took place.

In order to glimpse a future husband in a dream, it was advisable to stand on the bars of a gate or stile and look up at the new moon whilst chanting the following words aloud:

 

All hail to thee, moon, all hail to thee,

I pray thee, good moon, reveal to me,

This night who my husband shall be.

 It’s also worth mentioning that the Victoria Cross was first instituted on 29th January 1856. The medals were, as they still are, made from the metal of guns captured during the Crimean War.

Categories:History

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